Enforcer Awards 1943-2017

The Enforcer, vicious middle linebacker Dick Butkus, inspires the title of this award, which goes to the best inside linebacker in a given season. In general, I prefer linebackers who are strong in coverage, but I do love a classic thumper who blows up blockers and devastates ball carriers at the point of attack. It is also important for the man in the middle to be able to call the shots for the defense, but that can be hard to tell on tape and doesn’t show up at all in the stat sheet. Speaking of stats, I take those into account, but they can sometimes be deceiving for linebackers. Tackles, especially, can tell the wrong story of a player, leading us to believe he was a hyperactive playmaker rather than a pile-jumper and cleanup artist. When it comes to run defense, stuffs are a more meaningful measure. Of course, even basic stats like tackles don’t go back all that far, which is why it is important to devour as much film as possible to provide context to what little data are available. I also find it useful to read contemporary accounts to get a feel for how players were viewed when they played rather than how they are viewed in hindsight.

Enforcer Award Winners

The table below contains every Enforcer Award winner since 1943. Read it thus: In 1943, playing in the NFL, Charley Brock of the Packers won his first Enforcer Award.

1943NFLCharley BrockGreen Bay Packers1
1944NFLAlex WojciechowiczDetroit Lions1
1945NFLCharley BrockGreen Bay Packers2
1946NFLRiley MathesonLos Angeles Rams1
1946AAFCBill WillisCleveland Browns1
1947NFLVince BanonisChicago Cardinals1
1947AAFCBill WillisCleveland Browns2
1948NFLFrank SinkovitzPittsburgh Steelers1
1948AAFCBill WillisCleveland Browns3
1949NFLFred NaumetzLos Angeles Rams1
1949AAFCBill WillisCleveland Browns4
1950NFLChuck BednarikPhiladelphia Eagles1
1951NFLBill WillisCleveland Browns5
1952NFLBill WillisCleveland Browns6
1953NFLBill WillisCleveland Browns7
1954NFLJoe SchmidtDetroit Lions1
1955NFLBill GeorgeChicago Bears1
1956NFLBill GeorgeChicago Bears2
1957NFLJoe SchmidtDetroit Lions2
1958NFLJoe SchmidtDetroit Lions3
1959NFLSam HuffNew York Giants1
1960NFLJoe SchmidtDetroit Lions4
1960AFLArchie MatsosBuffalo Bills1
1961NFLJoe SchmidtDetroit Lions5
1961AFLSherrill HeadrickDallas Texans1
1962NFLJoe SchmidtDetroit Lions6
1962AFLSherrill HeadrickDallas Texans2
1963NFLBill GeorgeChicago Bears3
1963AFLArchie MatsosOakland Raiders2
1964NFLRay NitschkeGreen Bay Packers1
1964AFLNick BuonicontiBoston Patriots1
1965NFLDick ButkusChicago Bears1
1965AFLNick BuonicontiBoston Patriots2
1966NFLRay NitschkeGreen Bay Packers2
1966AFLNick BuonicontiBoston Patriots3
1967NFLRay NitschkeGreen Bay Packers3
1967AFLNick BuonicontiBoston Patriots4
1968NFLDick ButkusChicago Bears2
1968AFLWillie LanierKansas City Chiefs1
1969NFLDick ButkusChicago Bears3
1969AFLWillie LanierKansas City Chiefs2
1970NFLDick ButkusChicago Bears4
1971NFLWillie LanierKansas City Chiefs3
1972NFLDick ButkusChicago Bears5
1973NFLWillie LanierKansas City Chiefs4
1974NFLBill BergeyPhiladelphia Eagles1
1975NFLBill BergeyPhiladelphia Eagles2
1976NFLJack LambertPittsburgh Steelers1
1977NFLRandy GradisharDenver Broncos1
1978NFLRandy GradisharDenver Broncos2
1979NFLHarry CarsonNew York Giants1
1980NFLJack LambertPittsburgh Steelers2
1981NFLJack LambertPittsburgh Steelers3
1982NFLJack LambertPittsburgh Steelers4
1983NFLJack LambertPittsburgh Steelers5
1984NFLMike SingletaryChicago Bears1
1985NFLMike SingletaryChicago Bears2
1986NFLKarl MecklenburgDenver Broncos1
1987NFLFredd YoungSeattle Seahawks1
1988NFLMike SingletaryChicago Bears3
1989NFLKarl MecklenburgDenver Broncos2
1990NFLPepper JohnsonNew York Giants1
1991NFLJessie TuggleAtlanta Falcons1
1992NFLJunior SeauSan Diego Chargers1
1993NFLJunior SeauSan Diego Chargers2
1994NFLJunior SeauSan Diego Chargers3
1995NFLKen NortonSan Francisco 49ers1
1996NFLSam MillsCarolina Panthers1
1997NFLRay LewisBaltimore Ravens1
1998NFLRay LewisBaltimore Ravens2
1999NFLRay LewisBaltimore Ravens3
2000NFLRay LewisBaltimore Ravens4
2001NFLRay LewisBaltimore Ravens5
2002NFLBrian UrlacherChicago Bears1
2003NFLRay LewisBaltimore Ravens6
2004NFLJames FarriorPittsburgh Steelers1
2005NFLBrian UrlacherChicago Bears2
2006NFLBrian UrlacherChicago Bears3
2007NFLDeMeco RyansHouston Texans1
2008NFLPatrick WillisSan Francisco 49ers1
2009NFLPatrick WillisSan Francisco 49ers2
2010NFLLawrence TimmonsPittsburgh Steelers1
2011NFLPatrick WillisSan Francisco 49ers3
2012NFLPatrick WillisSan Francisco 49ers4
2013NFLNaVorro BowmanSan Francisco 49ers1
2014NFLLuke KuechlyCarolina Panthers1
2015NFLLuke KuechlyCarolina Panthers2
2016NFLBobby WagnerSeattle Seahawks1
2017NFLBobby WagnerSeattle Seahawks2

With seven Enforcer Awards, Browns legend Bill Willis has the most of any player. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given that he had limited competition for the award playing on a powerhouse defense and occupying a position in its infancy. He was a great player and should be credited for his role as a groundbreaker, but he wouldn’t have taken so many awards had he played a decade later.

Joe Schmidt and Ray Lewis took six awards each. They are similar players in that they were terrific all-around performers with no obvious holes in their game, and they were both the driving forces for title-winning defensive dynasties. Schmidt is one of the great cover men in history, and Lewis may be the best sideline to sideline rover ever to stroll the field.

Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert earned a handful of Enforcer Awards. Butkus was a rampaging monster who sacrificed his body in the name of making plays. Talk of him tends to focus on his ability to stop the run, but he was also quite talented in coverage. Lambert was incredible in pass defense and, along with Jack Ham, demonstrated the importance of having strong coverage backers. He played behind, beside, and in front of Hall of Famers and legends, so it is fair to question if he was as good as his legend indicates. I believe he was close.

Nick Buoniconti and Willie Lanier were AFL standouts who picked up four awards apiece. Both were great, but I give the nod to Lanier, whose best came in a stronger AFL and in the post-merger NFL. In my opinion, Lanier was every bit as good as the more celebrated Butkus. Recent retiree Patrick Willis rounds out the four-timer club. He did everything you could want a linebacker to do: he was effective in coverage and versus the run, he could blitz, he got his guys lined up correctly, he intimidated offenses, and he had the speed to chase down receivers from behind.

I may take heat for giving an inside linebacker award to Junior Seau, who was an outside linebacker in a 4-3 those years. Frankly, his responsibilities those seasons were close enough to those of a middle linebacker that I didn’t feel a shred of guilt cheating on the positional designation a little.

The Chicago Bears are known for their tradition of middle linebackers. Between Bill George, Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher, the bears have rostered fourteen Enforcer Award winners – by far the most of any team.